A few weeks ago, at a conference for Draper Richards Kaplan Fellows, we were asked to define our own leadership styles. We were then told that if we really wanted to know what we were like as leaders, we should ask our employees, who would have a better sense of our strengths and weaknesses than anyone. I generally agree with this concept, and at Generation Citizen, we do 360 evaluations, and all that good stuff. But I’ve also realized that were you to ask my staff, our donors, the outside world, about my leadership, you would get vastly different answers. And that’s partially because very few people (probably including myself) know the real me. And to understand my leadership, you’d have to know the real me.
The best advice that I’ve ever received about leadership is to be authentic. Be yourself, and people will respect you all the more. There are a few problems with this, though. Firstly, I think most people are incredibly complex, so being authentic is rather complicated. Secondly, we live in a society in which everyone, and especially leaders, are constantly judged. It can be hard to live up, or down, to this judging. I will stipulate that leaders do sign up for this, to an extent.
Two specific articles piqued my interest this week on this topic. The first, by David Brooks on the death of Margaret Thatcher, talked about Thatcher holding session in the House of Commons in 1990 during the Tory Coup. According to Brooks, the session was a “triumph””, as she crushed the opposition and the hecklers. But when Brooks asked her about the episode later, and her thought process during the leadership triumph, she said that she was only thinking about thank you notes and other mundane tasks for that night. My sense is that Margaret Thatcher actually was rather authentic, and what you saw was what you got. Those that loved her and those that hated her (it seems that there is nothing in the between) saw her the same. To her credit, she probably didn’t care that much what people thought of her. There’s something to be admired about that (many would say George W. Bush embodied some of those characteristics).
In a different vein, I thought that the New York Times Magazine profile this week of Anthony Weiner, post scandal, was fascinating. Here was a leader poised to be a front-runner for Mayor of New York City, who lost his prominence due to a scandal that still makes very little sense. In the article, I thought he came across as repenting, self-aware, and even a little sympathetic. But I know that others still see him as a self-absorbing narcissist (and the fact that the article came out as he thinks about returning to politics may suggest cold calculation). Regardless, Weiner is a complex political leader, and authenticity for him is complicated. And, regardless, we will continue to judge him. He signed up for it.
So how do we define our own leadership when dealing with these dual notions of complex authenticity and constant judging? The notion of who defines a leader’s strengths and weaknesses is probably more important than what those strengths and weaknesses actually are. President Obama’s another easy universal example of disparate leadership. Leaving aside his actual politics for a second (and you have some in this country who think he is an avid socialist, and others who think he is completely abandoning the liberal left), people have vastly different opinions on his leadership style. Some think he is an aloof, hands-off leader who is uncompromising and cannot bring people together. Others assert that he is a skilled listener, who is able to consolidate feedback and effectively compromise as a pragmatist. So, which one is he?
Not to put myself in that same boat, at all, but I find it interesting the disparate notions of my own leadership that exist. I know that some people think I’m thoughtful, too modest, do not talk up GC or myself enough, and am too cautious and not direct enough. There are others out there who think that I’m young, arrogant enough to believe I can start an organization in my early 20’s, and sometimes detached, verging on disrespectful. The truth, I hope, is probably somewhere in the middle. But I guess I have trouble defining my own leadership when such vastly different opinions are out there.
So, what’s the answer? First, I think, is to try to better define ourselves, period. Not as leaders, but as people. To figure out what true authenticity means. The second, I would argue, would be to recognize that even leaders are people.
A few months ago, I sat on the beach with my mom in San Diego (she weasels her way into many life stories), talking about this concept. Specifically, she had just met some of our supporters in New York City, many of who thought I was impressive. I actually struggle to meet these expectations, especially as I am a natural introvert. My mom remarked that it was strange hearing the compliments. It made her feel good, but at the end of the day, I’m her son. Her ambitious, hard-working, but incredibly flawed son.
And therein lies one of the truths about leaders. They are people. Ambitious, putting themselves in the limelight, sure. But people. Flawed. With backstories that we may never know. And so, any answer about a leader’s style is not going to be as easy as analyzing their work at a surface-level. It’s going to be about understanding them as people. Which is much harder. But necessary.